Release date: 28 April 2022.
Cold Blows the Wind
Hobart Town 1878 – a vibrant town drawing people from every corner of the earth where, with confidence and a flair for storytelling, a person can be whoever he or she wants. Almost.
Ellen Thompson is young, vivacious and unmarried, with a six-month-old baby. Despite her fierce attachment to her family, boisterous and unashamed of their convict origins, Ellen dreams of marriage and disappearing into the ranks of the respectable. Then she meets Harry Woods.
Harry, newly arrived in Hobart Town from Western Australia, has come to help his aging father, ‘the Old Man of the Mountain’ who for more than twenty years has guided climbers on Mt Wellington. Harry sees in Ellen a chance to remake his life.
But, in Hobart Town, the past is never far away. When it reaches out, Ellen faces everything in life a woman fears most.
Based on a period in the lives of the author’s great-great-grandparents, Sarah Ellen Thompson and Henry Watkins Woods, Cold Blows the Wind is not a romance but it is a story of love – a mother’s love for her children, a woman’s love for her family and, those most troublesome loves of all, for the men in her life. It is a story of the enduring strength of the human spirit.
Ellen looked down at her open hand and pressed her lips tightly together. The palm was reddened by scrubbing that had failed to remove the blacking from the creases. She was supposed to do washing, ironing and, if there wasn’t enough of that, dusting and odd jobs, not cleaning and painting stoves and fire grates. If she didn’t get the black paste off, there would be stains on everything she touched, including Mrs Bryce’s fancy white tablecloths.
Ellen continued to stare down as Mrs Bryce carefully counted coins into her hand. She had given her two shillings extra. Ellen paused—should she say something? Was the old bat testing her?
She slowly raised her eyes. ‘That’s too much, Mrs Bryce.’
‘I am paying you what you are worth, Ellen.’
Ellen couldn’t stop her eyebrows shooting up.
Mrs Bryce’s round face creased into a broad smile that looked as if she meant what she was saying. ‘When Mrs Turner visited last week, she complimented me on the napkins, not only their whiteness but the way they were ironed and folded. It seems her girl is nowhere near as competent as you.’ Her pale eyelashes fluttered as she spoke. ‘And when I heard what she was paying her, I thought I should give you a little more.’
Ellen fought against a bubble of laughter. Mrs Bryce was worried Mrs Turner or one of her other friends would lure her away. Bet Mrs Turner was paying her girl three shillings more.
As if she could read Ellen’s mind, Mrs Bryce said, ‘Now don’t be getting ideas about leaving here. Most would not be as understanding as I have been. Not everyone agrees with me but, if we don’t give honest work to girls like you, we know what you will end up doing to make ends meet.’
The smug old bitch, she wouldn’t let it go. One day Ellen would tell her exactly where she could shove her job.
She forced a polite smile. ‘Thank you, Mrs Bryce. I’ll be back on Monday. My hands should be properly clean by then.’
Mrs Bryce nodded. ‘Yes, they should.’ She paused, her eyelashes fluttering faster than before as if she was thinking hard. ‘Perhaps, rather than employing a new girl to do the fireplaces, you could do them. I want them done thoroughly. You could come in on Fridays.’
Ellen frowned. ‘For the same pay?’
‘No, my dear, I will give you one shilling and sixpence extra, on top of what I have paid you today.’
Mrs Bryce winced as Ellen whistled.
Ellen smiled, genuinely this time. ‘Thank you, Mrs Bryce.’ What she could do with three shillings and sixpence extra! Start getting winter clothes for Billy and perhaps have enough left over for herself.
Ellen hummed as she walked along into Liverpool Street, stopping to stare into the windows of Mather’s store and Perkin and Nephew’s with their displays of pretty hats, straw and felt, decorated with ribbons and brightly dyed feathers. She sighed, even with her extra shillings she could never buy one of these. Still, she could buy some ribbon or flowers at one of the cheaper drapers and tidy her old hat. She hugged her shawl tighter, a sharp breeze tugging at her skirts despite the bright sunshine.
She stopped and waited on the footpath as a horse was led out from the blacksmith’s, still dreaming of what she would buy if she could save her extra shillings for a few weeks. Perhaps she could get a new pair of gloves, dark ones to hide her stained hands. She strolled across Barrack Street and moved to the edge of the footpath thinking to cross to the other side of Liverpool Street.
‘Hey Ellen!’ A voice cut through her daydreams. ‘Come and have a drink with us.’
Damn! She should have crossed the road earlier.
A group of young men stood outside the Rob Roy Inn, jostling each other and laughing. Work was finished for the day or, more probably, they had slept in and fronted up late so didn’t get taken on. They clearly had nothing better to do than drink and annoy passing women.
Ellen kept walking. ‘You are joking, Dan Rogers.’
‘Don’t be like that, sweetheart.’ A gangly youth of Ellen’s age slid his arm around her waist.
‘Go to buggery. I’m not your sweetheart.’ She elbowed him sharply and watched for a break in the stream of carts and buggies heading up and down the street.
‘Don’t give yourself airs, sweetheart,’ he sneered. ‘We all know what you’re like.’
Ellen turned, her eyes blazing. ‘You bastard!’
‘You’d know all about bastards,’ he said, a smirk on his narrow ratty face.
Ellen stalked toward him, thumping her hands against his shoulders.
Rogers stumbled back against the wall of the pub.
‘You watch what you say, you little turd. My brothers will be back any day.’
He swallowed, his Adam’s apple wobbling. ‘I’m not scared of them.’
It was Ellen’s turn to smirk. ‘I heard, last time, Will only had to look at you and you pissed your pants.’
She marched away from him, out across the street, dodging a pile of horse manure.
‘You showed her, mate.’ The laughter rumbled behind her but, this time at least, it wasn’t directed at her.
Ellen slammed through the door into the kitchen, pulling the pins from her hat, her light brown hair tumbling down.
‘Why are there so many bloody useless loafers in this town?’ She stabbed the hatpins back into her hat and placed it on the battered sideboard alongside her mother’s hat, the pile of her father’s old newspapers and an assortment of other bits and pieces no one could work out where to put.
Mam turned from the stove, a gleam of amusement in her dark eyes. ‘What’s happened, my love?’
‘Dan Rogers and his mates, outside the Rob Roy, giving me lip.’ Ellen ran her fingers through her thick hair and twisted it back into a neatish knot.
‘And you gave them a piece of your mind,’ her father said from behind his week-old newspaper.
Her two youngest sisters, Alice and Jane, sitting at the end of the table, paused their game of cat’s cradle and watched, trying not to grin.
‘I did.’ Ellen raised her chin. ‘No one messes with a Thompson.’
‘No.’ Her father looked over his paper, his hazel eyes fierce. ‘They do not.’
‘And Mrs Bryce,’ Ellen said, pushing the last of her hairpins into place, ‘had me blacking the fireplaces. She said there wasn’t enough ironing today, so it was either do the fireplaces or not get paid at all. Said it like she was doing me a favour.’
‘Money’s money, Ellen.’ Dad lowered his newspaper.
‘But, Dad, look at my hands.’ She held them out. ‘Her and her blasted fireplaces. Next thing she’ll have me emptying her piss pot.’
Her father raised his voice. ‘Language, girl.’
‘You can talk.’
‘I’m an old man, I can say and do as I like.’ He lifted his paper again. ‘You’re little more than a young wench.’
Knowing he couldn’t see her, Ellen poked her tongue out.
Jane and Alice stared at each other, stifling their giggles.
Bessie, two years younger than Ellen, sat by the window, her attention on the seam of the blouse she was mending.
Her back to the room, Mam stirred the large pot simmering on the stove. ‘You haven’t given her a piece of your mind and lost the job?’
‘No, but it’s beyond me why these old women can’t do their own housework like the rest of us.’
‘You wouldn’t have a job if they did.’ Mary Ann, her elder sister, walked in and dumped her hat beside Ellen’s.
Mary Ann was so damned practical.
‘You haven’t spent the day cleaning fireplaces. Do you know how many fireplaces that house has?’
‘There are days where I think I’d prefer cleaning fireplaces to dusting china dogs and vases. Mary Ann pulled a face and said in a plummy voice, ‘That plate is Wedgwood, my dear. It is worth more than you are ever likely to earn in a year.’
‘What’s the point of that?’ Alice asked.
Mary Ann shrugged. ‘It’s pretty but not much use if you can’t eat off it.’ She raised an eyebrow, grinning. ‘So, what are her unmentionables like?’
‘Drawers big enough to make a sail for a clipper.’
‘Show some respect,’ Dad laughed.
‘The table needs to be set,’ Mam called over her shoulder.
Mary Ann looked across at the younger girls. ‘Come on, you two, get on with it.’
Jane spread the cloth on the table, and Alice set the cutlery. Bessie was still sewing, off in a world of her own.
‘Bessie, wake up.’ Mary Ann raised her voice. ‘I’m surprised you haven’t had an accident at Peacock’s the way you wander about in a dream.’
Colour spread up Bessie’s cheeks. ‘I don’t work in the tin shop or making the jam, I pack the tins into crates.’ She walked over and put her sewing on the sideboard. She took out the plates and carried them to her mother. ‘And I concentrate on what I do,’ she said, scowling.
Ellen watched her sister, back at the table now cutting slices from a loaf of bread. Her head down, her chin puckered as if she was about to cry. Bessie seemed to lack the fight the rest of the Thompsons had and, of all the girls, was the one most likely to be bossed about by Mary Ann. There was nothing Ellen could do to help her.
She glanced around the room. ‘How’s my darling boy been today?’
‘A perfect angel,’ Mam said. ‘He’s still asleep in the front room.’
‘I hope that doesn’t mean he will be awake half the night.’
She walked out of the kitchen and into the front room that was both sitting room and bedroom for her brothers when they were at home. Bending over the cot in the corner of the room, she gently crooned to the sleeping child. ‘Time to wake up, Billy boy. Time to have tea.’
Ellen scooped him up, covering his cheeks with kisses as he squirmed and grizzled.
‘Who’s got a wet bottom?’ She bounced him gently. ‘We’d better fix that.’
His napkin changed, she carried him back to the kitchen.
Alice, at eight already a sure hand with her nephew, held out her arms. Ellen placed him on her lap and pressed her nose to Billy’s head, drinking in the blissful scent that was her baby boy.
Alice grinned into Billy’s face as he reached for her nose. She poked his with her finger; Billy blew a raspberry back at her.
Over at the stove Ellen spooned a small portion of the stew, more potato than meat, into a dish, mashed it with a fork and set it on the table to cool. An apron covering her dark skirt and bodice, she slid onto the bench beside Alice and took the child back, jigging him on her knee as he started to grizzle again.
‘You’re hungry aren’t you, my little darling? Let’s see if this is cool enough.’ She stirred the stew around, testing a spoonful against her lip, and offered it to the baby. Billy opened his mouth and willingly swallowed it down.
Mam began to ladle the stew on to plates, and Bessie and Jane placed them on the table. Dad put his paper aside as the rest seated themselves on the benches and assorted chairs either side of the table.
Ellen ate a mouthful of her stew then continued to feed Billy.
‘I wonder where Will is now,’ Mary Ann said.
Dad finished chewing and said, ‘Out in the middle of the ocean. They can go months without making land. He said this would be a long tour.’
Mam’s eyes shone but she said brightly, ‘George should be home soon.’
They all turned as the front door slammed.
‘Speak of the Devil,’ Dad laughed.
‘George,’ the young women all squealed together, jumping up from their seats and crowding around their brother.
‘My, you do smell sweet.’ Ellen stood on tiptoes to kiss his cheek, Billy on her hip.
‘Of course, I do.’ He dumped his kitbag over against the wall. ‘I’ve been to the Turkish baths and had a shave. A new set of clothes too.’ He spun in front of her. ‘What do you think of the jacket?’
Ellen ran her eyes over the short, fitted jacket in blue wool. ‘Very smart.’ She screwed up her nose. ‘I can still smell whale oil.’
‘Smell or no smell, it pays well.’ He looked around the room. ‘Will not here?’
‘He’s been and gone in the time you’ve been away,’ Dad said. ‘Off on the Emily Downing at the start of the month.’
‘Sit down, son.’ Mam was back at the stove, ladling stew onto a plate. ‘Bessie, cut your brother some bread.’
‘Shove up, Ellen.’ George sat on the bench beside Ellen. ‘I could eat a horse.’
‘No horse in the pot here,’ Mam snorted.
George turned to Ellen, his eyes on the child on her lap. ‘And who do we have here?’
‘Who’s the father?’
There was silence in the room.
‘You are blunt, aren’t you?’ Ellen said, a twist to her mouth.
Well,’ George grinned, ‘I’ve learnt babies don’t just appear on the doorstep.’
‘That mongrel John Collins.’
‘And he didn’t marry you.’ It was a statement not a question.
‘No, and I wouldn’t have him if he was served up on a platter with an apple in his mouth.’
‘Do you want me to have a word with him?’
‘He cleared out soon as I told him, didn’t give Will or Dad a chance to have a serious word with him.’
‘What’s the lad called?’ He grinned at the boy and took his chubby fingers in his, shaking them gently.
Billy eyed his uncle warily and buried his face against his mother’s shoulder.
‘William John Thompson.’
‘Not George—I am disappointed.’
‘I’ll call the next one George.’
‘Next one?’ George arched an eyebrow.
‘Oh, I’ll have a ring on my finger before then. A big one I can wave under old Mrs Bryce’s nose.’
Harry leant against the railing as the sky gradually lightened to a pink-tinged grey. He could barely tear his eyes away from the mountain rising behind the town, the fluted columns of the cliff face near the summit kissed by the rising sun.
The Southern Cross hooted loud and long as it steamed towards the wharf. Harry pulled his bedroll closer as two seamen thudded past. Cabin passengers had begun to emerge to watch as the steamer pulled slowly alongside the pier. Their servants were busy hauling their luggage out ready for the gangway to be lowered. Harry heard, through the door behind him, a sailor calling below for the steerage passengers to come on deck. He had escaped the sour fug of sweat and vomit as soon as he woke. The heavy seas and wind overnight had not made the journey easy. It had been bad enough with only five of them; it would be unbearable when it was full and in winter when they couldn’t come on deck.
The steerage passengers had been told to wait until the cabin class had alighted but Harry saw a gap and slipped behind the first group down the gangway. Money didn’t make them any better than he was.
He made his way through the crowd on the pier toward the town, scanning faces as he went. His father had said he came into town every couple of days. Would he recognise him after all this time? He said he rode a white horse—Harry could see a piebald and a grey, but no white anywhere in sight. A surprising longing for Eliza swept over him. She would have everything organised, know what to do and where to go. He took a deep breath. The past was the past.
He walked away from the docks with its tangle of masts, hooting steamers and the general thud and hubbub of a working port busy with cargoes loading and unloading. The mountain rose above the town, in the distance, giving him an idea of the direction he should go, but he needed to work out the streets that would take him there.
Like Perth, Hobart Town’s streets looked to be laid out in straight lines. Between the wider streets there were narrow lanes but, unlike Perth, settled on flat land, Hobart Town sloped upwards towards the mountain. Most of the larger buildings were of stone, many two or three storied, the public buildings with grand pillars and porticos, others with awnings or verandahs, some trimmed in fine iron lace.
Harry buttoned his coat against a sharp gust of wind. Although the sky was clear and the sun shining, the wind was cold. Good thing the old man had warned him to bring a coat and thick socks.
Carts and drays, buggies and traps rolled down the street, women with baskets over their arms were out and busy, men in smart suits and shabbier workingmen moved with purpose along the footpaths and across the roads, here and there a loafer was already at work holding a streetlamp up. The smell of baking bread wafted through an open door. Harry’s stomach grumbled—he could do with tea and a bun at least. He hadn’t eaten much on the crossing, fearful it would not stay down. He wondered how the old man had survived it, four months he had said, halfway across the world in the hold of a ship. They made them tough back then.
Harry whistled as he came out of the small refreshment room—scalding tea and a meat pie straight from the oven and he was fit to face anything this new town threw at him. He dodged his way across the street to where a carter was loading crates and tight packed sacks onto a wagon. Two blinkered horses stood munching at the feed in the bags hanging from their noses.
‘Excuse me, mate.’
The carter straightened up. He was a half head taller than Harry, broad across the shoulders and around ten years younger.
‘Could you point me in the direction of the Huon Road?’
‘Going that way myself—as far as Fern Tree. Where are you off to?’
‘The Springs on Mount Wellington.’
‘I’ll point you to it. Got business up there with the Old Man of the Mountain?’
Harry frowned, not understanding.
‘Old Woods—he’s lived on the mountain since God knows when.’
‘How much for the ride?’
‘Give me a hand loading this lot and we’ll be square.’ He held out a broad calloused hand. ‘Bob Flanagan’s the name.’
Harry offered an equally calloused hand. ‘Harry Woods.’
Bob’s clear blue eyes lit with interest. ‘Related?’
‘Didn’t know the old man had children.’
Harry threw his swag into the wagon and hefted a sack.
Bob seemed to take the hint. ‘S’pose, we had better get on with the job.’
As the wagon lumbered its way through the streets, Bob pointed out the sights of Hobart Town and offered free advice—the best place for a feed, the cleanest lodgings at a decent rate, where to avoid if you didn’t want watered beer or a fight every night.
As the road rose, the town fell behind them. Harry turned and looked back. On the outskirts, houses were set well apart, neat behind their orderly fences. Further off, the town seemed to be a mass of buildings huddled beside the river sparkling in the morning sunlight. Beyond the river, hills rolled along the horizon.
Bob clearly liked to talk and as long as he got an answer, he seemed satisfied. Harry’s terse replies did not stem his flow.
‘First trip to Tasmania?’
‘Must have been a while since you’ve seen your father?’
‘Thirty-odd years.’ Harry kept his eyes on the road ahead, aware that Bob was staring at him.
‘You would have been a nipper when you saw him last.’
Harry nodded. ‘I was.’
Bob whistled between his teeth. ‘And where are you from, Harry?’
‘Western Australia. Born in Fremantle.’
‘Warm place from what I’ve heard.’
‘Warm enough.’ He gazed at the clear sky, the earlier cool breeze had disappeared. ‘It’s pleasant here.’
‘Today it is.’ He glanced at Harry’s nearly new coat. ‘Come winter, you’ll need that coat.’
They drew aside as another cart passed in the opposite direction. In places the land beside the road was fenced but the further they travelled, towering trees pressed close at the sides of the road, banks of tree ferns stood three times taller than a man. And in the breaks in the trees the mountain loomed, the pattern of the rock near the summit clear.
Bob pulled back on the reins and called to the horses. They halted opposite a signpost.
‘If you follow that track through there, it will take you right up to the Springs. Bit of a hike, and steep too, but you can’t miss it.’
Harry jumped down and pulled his swag out from the tray of the wagon, slung it across his back. ‘Thanks for the lift, Bob, much obliged.’
‘No trouble at all. Might call in one day for a drop of the old man’s poitín—it’s a fine brew considering he’s an Englishman.’ He tipped his hat and with a flick of the reins he called to the horses and the wagon rumbled off.
Harry crossed the road, past a tall stump with initials carved into it—the work of visiting climbers, he supposed—to a tree with signs nailed on. One pointed to Fern Tree, whatever or wherever that was, the other to the Springs.
Harry tramped along the path. It was well made in parts, rough in others, stones and leaf litter underfoot. Fallen branches had been pushed to the side in a few places. Gum trees soared towards the blue sky, here and there logs lay on the ground, furred with moss. The silence was broken by intermittent birdcalls. Light fell in shafts through the canopy. He stopped when the track flattened out, sweating with the effort of the steep climb, and took off his coat. Taking a deep breath, he drank in the clean scent of the bush, and looked back through a break in the trees. He could see for miles. Hobart Town and the river glimmered in crystal light. He slung his jacket over one shoulder and plodded on as the track climbed higher.
Header Image: The Cascades factory & Mt Wellington by JW Beattie (cropped) courtesy of the State Library of Victoria